Pumping ban partially lifted in Barwon-Darling River

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A ban on pumping from the Barwon-Darling River has been partially lifted, 12 days after the rule was introduced.

The rule, part of the NSW Government’s Barwon-Darling Unregulated Water-Sharing Plan, requires A, B and C class licence holders to stop pumping when the flow at Wilcannia has been less than 200 megalitres for 90 days.

The rule was introduced on July 1 last year to try to protect the environment and ensure river connectivity during low-flow periods and was triggered for the first time on January 12.

Water New South Wales says a forecast river flow has now met targets to allow Class A licence holders to pump again, but the ban currently still applies for all other licence holders.

Water NSW’s Adrian Langdon said there had been some good flows part Bourke to date that wet up most of the river.

“We’re forecasting flows to be above 972 megalitres per day at Bourke for 10 days, and the flows at Wilcannia will be above 400 megalitres a day for 10 days,” he said.

“We are allowing some small amounts of irrigation access which won’t affect those targets.”

More water access to come

The river flow is expected to reach Wilcannia by the end of the week and Lake Weatherill in approximately two weeks.

“The rule was put in place to enable connectivity when the system had stopped flowing at Wilcannia for 90 days,” Mr Langdon said.

A bend in a river with a dusty river bank, some logs and sticks in the river and leafy green trees along the riverbankA bend in a river with a dusty river bank, some logs and sticks in the river and leafy green trees along the riverbank
The Darling River at Menindee in early January 2021(Supplied: Sergey Krusch)

“What this rule has done is allow us to protect that initial flush and ensure we have connectivity along the river system and fill weir pools up to secure town supplies,” he said.

Water NSW is closely monitoring the situation and will allow more irrigator access, dependent on the volume of water in the river.

“As of Thursday, we expect we will have reached the 10-day flows target at Bourke, then we can start looking at allowing further access upstream for other classes depending on flow as it comes through,” said Mr Langdon.

“This brings the rules back into the normal flow class access rules potentially towards the end of the week.”

Good rule but ‘it needs work’

Some graziers say they are pleased to see the new rule in place, but its first implementation has already highlighted some issues.

Tilpa grazier and chair of the Australian Floodplain Association Justin McClure said this his rule was a big step forward.

“We’re not there yet, but this rule is going to help get water through to Menindee, so it’s going to be a great start anyway,” he said.

“But you’ve got to put that into context too. Because the rule doesn’t make any allowance for the lower Darling, it doesn’t give any consideration to the southern basin, and I think that is a failure.”

A rainbow over a river, with the reflection of the rainbow in the river making a perfect circleA rainbow over a river, with the reflection of the rainbow in the river making a perfect circle
The Barwon-Darling River at Brewarrina.(Supplied: Burra McHughes)

“We’re one system. The basin is one basin. To separate it into two basins and operate them opposed to each other is absolutely ridiculous.”

Rachel Strachan, a lower Darling farmer agreed the rule needed work.

“It’s a step in the right direction [the rule], but we’ve found some major inadequacies in the policy as it stands, especially if it’s a small flow,” she said.

“The Darling doesn’t finish at Wilcannia. The Darling finishes and joins the Murray influence at Wentworth.”

“So how the Government has decided to cut the Darling River in half, and only honour having critical needs met within the top half of it, is perplexing to all of us down here and frustrating to no end.”

“So, we’ll be continuing to fight for that to be recognised within water sharing plans — especially within the northern basin plans — that there are storage targets at Menindee that underpin critical needs for a minimum of 18 months down here at Menindee and the lower Darling.

Cotton crops ‘will be sacrificed’

Irrigators say they appreciate the new rule is clear and fair by setting out clear flow targets.

Ian Cole from irrigator group Barwon Darling Water said his group liked the idea of having a set of rules that governed how water was accessed.

He said they preferred that to “of having some sort of daily decision or a political decision being made by a Minister or the head of a Government department”.

“No-one is arguing over the rule. It’s a good rule to make sure the river runs from top to bottom, and all the priority needs under the water management act are looked after.

“We understand irrigators sit at the bottom of the pile for access.”

An image of green cotton crop as far as the eye can see, with lots of deep green leavesAn image of green cotton crop as far as the eye can see, with lots of deep green leaves
Irrigators along the Barwon-Darling River are hopeful for a successful cotton harvest as drought recovery continues(Supplied: Djanayah Jeffries)

However, the cotton growers who were relying on the river flow now face the real possibility of losing cotton crops.

“The flow is big enough to meet all the environmental and critical human use, but there’s not much extra water there for irrigation,” said Mr Cole.

“The pumping thresholds have been met, but irrigators haven’t been able to access water since January 12 at a time when it’s very hot and very dry to finish crops.”

“This small 30-40 gigalitre flow, while big enough to get down the river, is not going to provide much water for productive use at this time.”

Mr Cole said losing cotton crops would be a huge blow.

“This is not open slather. It’s only A Class use at the moment. There are people that will have to sacrifice some of their crop. There are crops that won’t make it through summer and given the investment in those crops that is a real issue.”